In a series of posts I am exploring the competing visions of nature in the work of William Wordsworth and Charles Darwin (find the full series here). The upshot of the history I have reviewed so far was that “thirty years after his death, the poet from an obscure nook in northern England was being compared to Jesus Christ.”1 How is this apotheosis to be accounted for?
Various theories have been advanced. Fellow poet John Keats contended that Wordsworth surpassed even John Milton since Milton in his Paradise Lost had essentially poetized the accepted Biblical grand narrative whereas Wordsworth had searched his heart to produce fresh and more authentic religious insights.2 More recently, world religions authority Karen Armstrong made the bold claim that Wordsworth succeeded in quite literally bringing his readers closer to God. In her recently published Sacred Nature she contends that “in the Western world since the Middle Ages we have confined God to the heavens and so made God either imperceptible or else incredible.”3 By contrast, Wordsworth’s evocation of God-in-Nature had relocated Him within the natural world (such was certainly the apprehension of the Wordsworthian disciple William Hale White).
Armstrong’s claim may need some qualification, partly because it appears to apply more to the Protestant context than to the older, Catholic tradition. For instance, it is true that some deeply seated religious ideas foregrounding the immanent power of Nature like the healing power once ascribed to sacred wells were swept away following the Protestant Reformation.4 That having been said, however, such tenets as the divine sonship of Christ together with the service of the Eucharist itself have remained features common to Christian tradition with the scarcely deniable effect of bringing the godhead closer to earth.
However one may be inclined to adjudicate on that particular issue, Armstrong’s contention that an awareness of the inherent sanctity of nature might be more vividly preserved in non-Christian faith traditions may still have some validity. She records that in the Middle East, India, and China people have traditionally viewed the sacred as a shaping force permeating the whole natural order. In Europe that conception had been elaborated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas insisted that God was not confined to a supernatural heaven but was present everywhere in every thing. God was not to be understood as an entity apart from creation but rather creation itself (esse seipsum).
Another Category of Being
In the centuries that followed, however, with the exception of Spinoza (who essentially twinned God with his Creation), there arose the tendency to see God as another category of being, rather than as being itself and the divine essence at the heart of all things. Hence it is conceivable that what many, especially in the Protestant world, responded to particularly positively in Wordsworth’s evocations of Nature’s sacrality was his restoration of a partially obscured link between Nature and the divine. It may be imagined that for such persons Wordsworth’s message will indeed have appeared as a prophetic new gospel.
Next, “Wordsworth and the Faith of the Victorians.’”
- Jonathan Bate, Radical Wordsworth, p. 479.
- See Robert Ryan, The Church of Wordsworth, p. 85.
- Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature (London: Bodley Head, 2022), p. 77.
- See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Oxford: OUP, 1992).